fredag 20. desember 2013

Seriously… playing games at work in the ICT sector? Part I

Read Part II here

I’m the kind of researcher who finds it hard to shy away from a good mystery. I try to formulate every single argument of mine into a riddle waiting to be solved. Like the lecture mystery, where I experimented with making cartoons instead of verbal arguments. Changing modes can be a powerful way of saying the same things only slightly differently, and therefore one might see new things that were hidden in the mass of words.

We social anthropologists find our mysteries by venturing into unknown land with unknown people, and unknown customs. Often far away and for as long as funding permits, preferrably years on end. 

I was invited into a new culture by Dagfinn, my former classmate. He gets in touch because he's been reading my blog and he is sure I have something to contribute to his tribe, and at first I couldn't understand why. And that is suffieciently mysterious for me to make an interest. I got the opportunity to use my field skills on a very exotic culture, but only for a brief moment, and I only needed to travel downtown by bus to make my little visit. And I'm not sure I've captured the spirit of this culture, if you belong to it, your comments would be very instructive. 

They are IT people.  They provide people with the administrative systems that they need in their job. Often systems and routines they have to work through several times a day. More specifically, this is called IT service management (ITSM)– and the people I’ve met subscribe to the ITIL-approach of ITSM. Like many a new culture in business, they furnish themselves with abbreviations they use as words, and I have no idea yet what ITIL as an acronym is for.

But I know Dagfinn's goal. He wants to get changes through in his culture so that they get better at following the motto stated below.

IT should be made as simple as possible. One only needs the minimum structure that imposes itself as little as possible on the work, and does not require any more time than necessary.

After a few conversations, Dagfinn invites me to a conference for the ITIL community where one beacon in change work for ITIL-people is to speak. Paul Wilkinson thinks culture is an important focus area, and uses comics as a so-called “Awareness and assessment tool”. This gets me interested, for these are artful takes on matters, that I believe will work. His game "ABC of ICT" is a deck of cards, each card containing a drawing, a suit, a number and a text. Like this -

Every card is describing a worst practice in IT operations. And in any other position where one is making solutions for other people. Like organizational scholars for example. But unlike organizational scholars, the work of IT people cannot be ignored. People actually have to use their systems, 

The shown card is indeed one I recognize myself. It describes one of the reasons anthropologists are so useful when people work together. In an ideal world, where we interact with people within the same culture (or subculture), many things would be self-explanatory.

When some developer has made something that is very sensible (to himself), he might see no reason why he has to follow over that wall and explain what kind of problem he has solved, in what way, and how he has been thinking that this is useful to the people on the other side of the wall. And if he hasn’t been too much over that wall himself, it is no wonder that he doesn’t see where the people on the other side think differently. And sometimes, if he has been over that wall, he forgets that he knows something that others do not, and therefore he might not see the necessity of following his solution and making sure that it is understood as intended.  

The last paragraph describes almost the same as the picture, but it is very hard to do spell it out like this without making the developer or the explanation seem not so intelligent. The advantage of pictures is that we see the whole picture immediately; we don’t need to spell it out. 

In cartoons, like any visual expression, the precision is not in the unambiguous nature of the statement, but that it resonates with us, that we recognize it as describing something that we know. We make all the elaborations ourselves, by connecting the new image to everything we know from before, re-ordering previous knowledge in light of the new image.  

I could of course spend the reminder of this blog post to elaborate in text on how visual expressions work according to a logic of the senses, not as in the logic of science. But I’ve made that point elsewhere, and I’ll come back to it later as I analyze what actually happened when I saw the card game in use. See here: (in Norwegian)

What I’d like to stress now, is that the comics introduce an element of play in the workplace. Play is an end in itself because it is fun, and rewarding on its own hand. But we don’t go to work to play. We are at work to accomplish something. Work may be intrinsically rewarding, but that is a side effect. So this is an apparent paradox – often called serious play to embrace the ambiguities and uncertainties. Something fun is done to achieve something goal-oriented, and this requires a balancing act. Too much play, and it becomes meaningless. Too instrumental, and the fun disappears, and this also renders the activity meaningless.

In a paper called “Serious play and the practice of paradox”, Matt Statler et al. call this balancing act a paradox of intentionality. Something “fun” is initiated to achieve some serious ends.

They claim that it is important to frame serious play as a practice to understand how it appears and is used in organizations. This is important because it brings in context and time. Nothing is ever a standalone activity, everything is part of larger arrays of activities. And nothing is ever done once and never again – bringing in the time frame allows us to see practices as they continually emerge. They are repeated, rehearsed and reproduced, continually placing themselves in between what they are and what they aspire to be.

Practice as a way of understanding what people do, is a concept that fundamentally changes our view on knowledge, learning and production. Some organizational scholars who look at practice, do it with a view to what people really do (as in strategy-as-practice). But by looking at practice as a lens to understand other concepts, we are changing our epistemology, i. e. what we think is possible to know.

A practice theory approach to serious play allows us not to see play as separate, independent activities with definite causal effects, but as interdependent aspects of a set of activities. What is fun is also a matter of degree. For some, a change of venue might be enough of a break with everyday practice that it can make a meeting more fun. And introducing novel elements of gameplay might highlight the paradox of intentionality even further.

In the case of the game of "ABC in ICT", the cards are introduced as an awareness and assessment tool. The cards are given to the participants and they are encouraged to find the three cards that are most familiar.

The paradox of intentionality is present insofar as the participants accept the playful descriptions on the cards as descriptions of themselves. Instead of showing the familiar best practices that could be as simple as inverting the cards, the cards are showing the worst possible practices. To acknowledge a worst practice is more fun than admitting at failing at a best practice. At least it is less painful. And since it is done as a game, the rule is that you find the ones that you resonate with the most, not the ones that are most true.

It is subjective, and hence released from the burden of proof that a scientific inquiry into the organization would have to delve into. It might even be an instant fix of it gives you words for something that has been amiss but that you haven’t been aware of.

If we have assessed what is wrong, and we have a solution to fix it, even just a little bit – do we then need evidence to make changes that affect attitude, behavior or culture?

I will leave you with this question. I could have written this piece without attending the conference. But I did, and what I saw was something so puzzling that I have to write more to describe it. Stay tuned for how the game worked out in real life! 

(Or read Paul Wilkinson's account of the workshop here

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